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240 posts categorized "Decoration"

08 August 2020

Ludicrous figures in the margin

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‘Hours of the Virgin, decorated with shields of arms, and ludicrous figures in the margin’, was the description of Harley MS 6563 provided in the 1808 catalogue of the Harley Collection. Our catalogue records have come on a long way since then, but the lively marginal antics in this little Book of Hours still stand out. Already popular with viewers on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, they can now be appreciated in full on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Harley MS 6563 was made around 1320-1330 in Southern England, perhaps London, probably for a woman owner. Originally the manuscript must have been extensively illuminated, but sadly all the pages containing decorated initials or miniatures were removed in the early modern period. Yet almost all of its remaining pages feature drawings from the topsy-turvy world of medieval marginalia. In honour of its digitisation, let’s dive down the parchment rabbit hole to explore some of its marginal subjects and their possible meanings.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit running into a hole and emerging the other side.
A rabbit runs into a hole on one side of the page and emerges on the other side: Harley MS 6563, f. 33r-v

While endlessly inventive, this kind of playful marginalia found in manuscripts of the 13th-14th centuries tended to draw on certain reccurring themes which were common to medieval art of other media such as stained-glass windows, wall paintings, misericords and stone carvings, as well as popular literature of the time. The meanings of these themes are much debated and there are no definite answers, but this uncertainty makes marginalia all the more fun to puzzle over.

Crafty foxes

One much-loved character who makes a prominent appearance in the margins of this Book of Hours is the crafty fox, trickster and master of disguise, who was well-known to medieval audiences from the Renard the Fox stories and other animal fables. Two double-page scenes in the manuscript show a fox preaching to a flock of birds. The fox leans on a pilgrim’s staff and gestures emphatically while the birds gaze on in gullible wonder. Later in the manuscript we see the conclusion of the tale: a fox running away with an unlucky member of the congregation in his jaws.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox preaching to a flock of birds.
A fox preaching to a flock of birds: Harley MS 6563, ff. 54v-55r
A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox running with a bird in its mouth.
A fox runs away with a bird: Harley MS 6563, f. 6v

In another double-page scene the fox appears as a schoolmaster, birch and rod in hand, teaching a dog pupil who holds a book up to his face as though attempting to read. As with his preacher guise, the fox once again assumes a position of authority to misguide the ignorant and unwary.

Such scenes might be understood as social satires commenting on the corruption and folly of the human world. There may be a lesson to be learned here, as the Nun’s Priest concludes his retelling of a Renard the Fox story in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘Taketh the moralite, goode men’ (take up the moral, good men)—although he is conveniently vague about what the moral actually is.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a fox teaching a dog.
A fox teacher instructs a dog pupil: Harley MS 6563, ff. 22v-23r

Animal musicians

One particularly well-represented subject in this Book of Hours is animal musicians. A whole musical troupe of cats, pigs, dogs and rabbits is shown in concert over a series of five leaves in the Penitential Psalms, and others also appear throughout the manuscript.

The animal musicians probably belong to the popular theme in medieval marginalia of ‘the world turned upside down’. The idea that animals are unable to appreciate music was commonplace in the Middle Ages. A proverb inherited from classical antiquity via Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy referred to someone who fails to understand something as ‘the ass which cannot hear the lyre’. Similarly, a Middle English poem listing impossibilities includes, ‘whan swyn be conyng in al poyntes of musyke’ (when swine are knowledgeable in all points of music), as we might say ‘when pigs might fly’. The animal musicians might therefore represent the impossible becoming reality.

Details of animals playing musical instruments from the marginalia of Harley MS 6563
A cat playing a fiddle (f. 40r), a cat playing bagpipes (f. 40v), a boar playing a portative organ (f. 41r), a boar playing a harp (f. 41v), a dog playing a hurdy gurdy (f. 43r), a cat playing a psaltery (f. 43v), a rabbit playing a drum (f. 44r), a rabbit playing a trumpet (f. 44v): Harley MS 6563

Fighting snails

Another example of the inversion of reality is the ever-popular subject of figures fighting snails. In medieval marginalia, snails are notoriously hostile, as we see in this Book of Hours where a man attempts to fend off a large advancing snail with a club. On the following page, another man has cast down his sword and shield and begs for mercy before a ferocious mollusc.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man with a club fending off a snail.
A man with a club fends off a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 61v-62r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of an armed man surrendering to a snail.
An armed man surrenders to a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 62v-63r

Warrior women

But if anyone is able to triumph over such a formidable adversary, it is probably this naked woman warrior who is shown charging with a lance towards a snail. As part of the reversal of the social order in medieval margins, women, who were often expected to be subservient in medieval society, are sometimes shown as powerful militants and victors. Similarly, on another page a man surrenders to an armed woman.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a naked woman fighting a snail.
A naked woman warrior vs a snail: Harley MS 6563, ff. 86v-87r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a man surrendering to an armed woman.
A man surrenders to an armed woman: Harley MS 6563, ff. 63v-64r

Battle of the cats and mice

Role reversal is also the theme of the series of images for which this manuscript is best known: the battle of the cats and the mice. Over an eight-page narrative sequence, an epic war unfolds. First the mice besiege the cats’ castle, hurling rocks from a trebuchet and attempting to scale its walls. Then the cats attack the mouse castle, one firing a crossbow and another being crushed by a falling rock from the battlements. Next, a cat archer and a mouse lancer go head-to-head, and finally the mouse succeeds in impaling the unfortunate cat.

This triumph of the mice over the cats may also be understood as social commentary. In Boccaccio's Decameron, the artist and trickster Bruno paints a fresco of a battle of cats and mice in the house of the foolish doctor Simone. The doctor considers it a very fine piece, little knowing that Bruno and his friend Buffalmacco are actually swindling him. In the story, the cat’s defeat by the mice may reflect the wealthy doctor’s humiliation by the artists.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of mice besieging a cat in a castle.
Mice besiege cat castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 71v-72r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a crossbow attacking mice in a castle.
Cats besiege mouse castle: Harley MS 6563, ff. 72v-73r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat with a bow and a mouse lancer taking aim at each other.
Cat archer and mouse lancer take aim at one another: Harley MS 6563, ff. 73v-74r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a cat impaled by a mouse lancer, begging for mercy.
Mouse warrior has impaled the cat who begs for mercy: Harley MS 6563, ff. 74v-75r

Rabbit huntsmen

The idea of the hunted becoming the hunter also underlies the manuscript’s images of a rabbit huntsman, who in one instance takes aim at a very sorry-looking spotty dog. The same theme of killer rabbits taking revenge on the hounds is found in the margins of the Smithfield Decretals.

A detail from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit setting out and returning from a hunt.
A rabbit hunter sets out with a full quiver of arrows and returns with his quarry: Harley MS 6563, f. 20r-v
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of a rabbit hunter aiming at a dog with a bow and arrow.
A rabbit archer takes aim at a spotty dog: Harley MS 6563, ff. 96v-97r

The rich man and Lazarus

Yet there is also religious imagery with serious moral messages, such as scenes of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar from the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31). First we see three fashionably dressed diners at a feast shooing away a beggar on the facing page while dogs lick the sores on his legs. On the following pages, the rich man is shown on his deathbed accompanied by a devil, while the beggar is shown dying outdoors with an angel at his side.

This parable is also an instance of role reversal in that the rich man suffers torments in death, whereas the beggar is received into comfort, yet here the message is clearly sincere. That at least one of the manuscript’s owners found it disturbingly real is suggested by the way in which they attempted to rub out the figures of the devil and angel.

An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the rich man's banquet and the beggar Lazarus.
The rich man’s banquet and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 10v-11r
An opening from a Book of Hours, featuring a marginal illustration of the death of the rich man and Lazarus.
The death of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar: Harley MS 6563, ff. 11v-12r

To us it may seem strange to place scenes of cartoon violence alongside religious imagery with such urgent moral messages. But for medieval audiences, perhaps this was all part of a visual culture in which the sacred and profane, the entertaining and didactic, and the ludicrous and meaningful were more intricately intertwined than today.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

28 July 2020

Picturing the Old Testament in the Rochester Bible

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So far in this series of posts on the great Romanesque Bibles held by the British Library, I have focused on those made on the Continent: the Worms Bible, Arnstein Bible, Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible. Today’s blog is about an English example, from the former cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester, in the second quarter of the 12th century. Unlike the others, which are all in two huge volumes, only part of the Rochester Bible survives, now divided between the Royal collection in the British Library and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Both portions are fully digitised and available online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site (Royal MS 1 C VII), and on the Walters Art Museum's site (MS W.18).

Together these two parts constitute one of only eleven known extant English Romanesque display Bibles. Although it is slightly smaller than the Continental manuscripts featured, measuring 395 x 265 mm, the Rochester Bible is still a larger format than most other manuscripts from the period. The Royal portion of the Bible includes only the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth and I–IV Kings (I–II Samuel and I–II Kings in modern Bibles), while the Walters portion contains the New Testament. Four of the seven books have historiated initials (letters containing identifiable scenes or figures) depicting events described in the first chapters of these books. These historiated initials occur only in the Royal portion of the Bible, at the beginning of four of its seven books: Joshua, and I, II and IV Kings.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial F with an illustration of the Old Testament figure Elkanah and his wives.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Peninnah.
Historiated initial of Elkanah and his wives at the beginning of I Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 58r (detail)

In contrast to the incredibly complicated theological artwork of the Stavelot Bible and Floreffe Bible, the illustrations of these books initially appear to be more straightforward. For example, I Kings (I Samuel) begins with a discussion of Elkanah (Elcana in the Vulgate) and his two wives. Each is labelled in the initial with their names above. To his left, Peninnah (Phenenna) holds two children, and in contrast, the childless Hannah (Anna), to his right, holds one hand to her face, perhaps in a gesture of sorrow. This is a succinct summary of the first verses: ‘There was a man of Ramathaimsophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elcana, . . . And he had two wives, the name of one was Anna, and the name of the other Phenenna. Phenenna had children: but Anna had no children’. (I Kings 1: 1-3).

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial P with an illustration of Elijah's Ascension.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of Elijah's Ascension, with the Old Testament prophet depicted riding a chariot.
Historiated initial of the Ascension of Elijah at the beginning of IV Kings, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 154v (detail)

Similarly, the initial at the beginning of IV Kings illustrates the second chapter of the text, which describes how, after seeing ‘a fiery chariot’ with ‘fiery horses’, Elias (Elijah) ‘went up by a whirlwind into heaven’ (IV Kings 2:11). Yet as C.M. Kauffmann has noted, the choice of this subject for the illustration rather than an event from the first chapter of the book underlines the significance of the Ascension of Elijah as a prefiguration of Christ’s Ascension.

A page from the Rochester Bible, featuring a historiated initial E with an illustration of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v
A detail from the Rochester Bible, showing a historiated initial of two men with a book, perhaps Moses giving the book of law to Joshua.
Historiated initial of Moses and Joshua at the beginning of Joshua, the Rochester Bible, Royal MS 1 C VII, f. 2v (detail)

The imagery for the book of Joshua may be viewed as another layered interpretation of the text. The initial shows two men conversing: one young and beardless, and the other with grey hair and beard. The older man is handing the younger man a book. In order to fit the figures into the initial ‘E’, the artist presented the scene sideways—a relatively rare solution—and used the bar of the ‘E’ as a column, creating a setting within a building. Unlike Elkanah and his wives, the figures are not labelled. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this scene represents the transmission of the law from Moses to Joshua, as set out a few verses later:

Take courage therefore, and be very valiant: that thou mayst observe and do all the law, which Moses my servant hath commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayst understand all things which thou dost. Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth: but thou shalt meditate on it day and night, that thou mayst observe and do all things that are written in it: then shalt thou direct thy way, and understand it. (Joshua 1:7-8).

So this too, could have Christian significance as a reference to the Old Law that will be fulfilled in the New. It also echoes the actions of the blessed man of Psalm 1, who meditates on the law day and night, and who was understood by some Church Fathers to be a prefiguration of Christ. Further, as Lucy Freeman Sandler remarked, this verse begins next to the decorated initial in the right-hand column of the page, and the word ‘law’ (legem) appears only three lines lower than the image of the book in the initial (private communication).

Together, therefore, these initials enhance not only the elegant presentation of the Word, but also its interpretation.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Further reading:

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), no. 33.

C. M. Kauffmann, Romanesque Manuscripts 1066-1190 (London: Harvey Miller, 1975), no. 45.

C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller, 2003), pp. 87, 94, pl. 62, Appendix 2.

And our earlier blog post on the Rochester Bible.

13 June 2020

Layers of meaning in the Floreffe Bible

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Throughout the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical communities reading the Bible understood it on more than one level. In this they were following the advice of the Church Fathers, who advocated interpreting the Bible morally and allegorically, in addition to literally. For example, in a prefatory letter to his Moralia in Job, Gregory the Great (d. 604) explained that understanding a text is like constructing a building:

For first we lay the historical foundation; then through typological signification we raise a citadel of faith in the structure of the mind; finally, through moral interpretation we cloth the building with colour.

The most sophisticated biblical illustrations incorporate layers of meaning into their designs in this way. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, this kind of complex composition was particularly popular in the Meuse valley, in modern day Belgium. This method, often with numerous inscriptions and biblical quotations embedded in the image, was employed to decorate metalwork caskets, crosses and reliquaries, in addition to books.

Depiction of an allegory of the Virtues and the Corporal Works of Mercy in the Floreffe Bible
Allegory of the Virtues and the Corporal Works of Mercy, the Floreffe Bible,

One of the most elaborate and complex examples of this type of decoration in any medium occurs in a large two-volume Bible made in the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe, on the river Sambre near Namur, c. 1170. The Bible is another ‘giant’ Romanesque Bible, measuring 475 x 330 mm, like the Worms, Stavelot and Arnstein Bibles explored on this blog recently. It is fully digitised and available online: Add MS 17737 and Add MS 17738.

The second volume begins with the book of Job illustrated with a stunning double-page painting. Parts of the image are straightforward literal renderings of verses from the first chapter of Job. For example, near the top of the left-hand page seven men and three women are seated together at a long table covered with different dishes. This party is made up of Job’s children: his seven sons ‘made a feast by houses, every one in his day. And sending, they called their three sisters, to eat and drink with them’ (Job 1:4).

Above the feasting scene, Job is shown offering a sacrifice to God, with the hand of God emerging making a sign of blessing. The text recounts that after each feast, Job would do this for his children ‘ne [forte] peccaverint filii mei et benedixerint Deo in cordibus suis’ (in case perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts, Job:1:5), as quoted on the scroll that he holds in his left hand.

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing the feast of Job and his children, with Job making a sacrifice above
The feast of Job and his children, with Job making a sacrifice above, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

In contrast, the images below this become increasingly layered in meaning. The central image depicts the three theological virtues, Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit in roundels. This corresponds to a moral interpretation of Job made by St Gregory in his Moralia in Job. St Gregory explained that Job’s three daughters are to be understood as the three theological virtues, and his sons as Seven Gifts of the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah 11:2.

The eighth roundel contains the right hand of the Lord, which proclaims Dextera Domini fecit virtutem (The right hand of the Lord hath wrought strength, Psalm 117:16), and points directly below to a figure of Christ, with rays extending diagonally to twelve seated nimbed men. This image adds a further level of allegorical interpretation of the biblical text, in which the seven sons of Job are equated with the Apostles, who at Pentecost are filled with the sevenfold grace. (As explored by Anne-Marie Bouché, 'The spirit in the world: the virtues of the Floreffe Bible frontispiece: British Library, Add. Ms. 17738, ff. 3v-4r' in Virtue & Vice: The Personifications in the Index of Christian Art, ed. by Colum Hourihane (Princeton, 2000), pp. 42-65.)

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Faith, Charity and Hope surrounded by personifications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

Below the Apostles is another interpretation of the seven virtues. The scene depicts the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy derived from Matthew 25:35-36 and Tobit 1:17, here illustrated by scenes of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless and visiting the prisoner.

Detail of the allegory of the Virtues showing the Corporal Acts of Mercy
The Corporal Acts of Mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless and visiting the prisoner, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 3v (detail)

On the opposite page is an image of the Transfiguration, during which Christ, flanked by Moses and Elijah, is ‘transfigured’ to appear in glory to Sts John, Peter and James (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; and Luke 9:28-36). It is situated directly above a scene of the Last Supper conflated with Christ washing Peter’s feet. Like the facing page, numerous inscriptions interpret the images and their relationship to the forthcoming text. Directly above the two scenes a titulus explains that: ‘that which Moses veiled, behold the voice of the fathers reveals, and that which the prophets covered, Maria brought forth (Quem Moyses velat vox ecce paterna revelat. Quemq[ue] prophetia tegit est enixa maria).

Depiction of the Transfiguration and the Last Supper in the Floreffe Bible
The Transfiguration and the Last Supper, the Floreffe Bible, Add MS 17738, f. 4r

This tour de force of biblical interpretation explored visually demonstrates the sophistication of the accompanying illustration to a grand monastic Bible.

To read more about the decoration of this Bible, see the recent post about the opening to the Gospel of St Mark.

Kathleen Doyle

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

02 June 2020

The monumental art of the Stavelot Bible

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Around fifty years before the making of the Worms Bible, which we featured recently on the blog, another giant Bible was produced at the abbey of St Remaclus at Stavelot, not far from Liège, in modern-day Belgium. Both volumes of the awe-inspiring Stavelot Bible are digitised and available online as Add MS 28106 and Add MS 28107.

The monk Goderannus recorded that he and brother Ernesto spent four years working on the Stavelot Bible, and he was precise about what had been achieved in that time. He stated that the writing, illuminating and binding (scriptura, illuminatione, ligatura) had all been completed in 1097.

Despite this specificity, scholars still disagree on whether the two monks (or Ernesto at least) were the artists as well as the scribes of this impressive work. Some speculate that the artists were paid laymen instead of monks, and hence were omitted from the long colophon. Moreover, the difference in style between initials and other painting included in the work suggests that more than two people may have been involved in their production—one scholar identified five different artists.

Christ in Majesty, his feet on a T-O map
Christ in Majesty, his feet on a ‘T-O’ map, with the symbols of the Four Evangelists in the corners, Add MS 28107, f. 136r

What is clear, however, is the quality and the sheer monumentality of the painting included in the Stavelot Bible. Its most famous image, which opens the New Testament, is the huge full-page vision of Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. This painting is a powerful icon-like frontal presentation of Christ at the end of time. Christ’s feet rest on the globe of the world divided into three parts (a medieval ‘T-O’ map, of the orbis terrarum, which looks like the letter ‘T’ inside the letter ‘O’), and he holds a golden cross in his left hand. For contemporary viewers, this image may have recalled large scale paintings in church apses, as John Lowden suggested.

Decorated initial of St Luke at the beginning of his Gospel
St Luke at the beginning of the prologue to his Gospel, Add MS 28107, f. 161v

The tall standing or seated prophets and Evangelists depicted at the beginning of their texts are equally expressive and prepossessing. These include unusual standing Evangelists holding scrolls before the prefaces to their Gospels, such as the image of St Luke above.

Genesis initial ‘I’(n), small scenes depicted in roundels
Genesis initial ‘I’(n), with the Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, Crucifixion, Deposition, Resurrection, and Christ in Majesty running upwards from the bottom, in the central medallions, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

Painting on a much smaller scale is featured in the Bible's historiated initials. The most complex symbolism is reserved for the long initial ‘I’ (In principio) of Genesis that opens the first volume of the Stavelot Bible. Many small pictures cluster in and around the initial, and depict not the Days of Creation, as is typical in Genesis initials, but rather a series of scenes that provide a visual commentary on the story of salvation.

The words In principio read downwards in the centre, but all of the image sequences begin at the bottom of the page. The central group of roundels start with the Annunciation and culminate with an image of Christ in Majesty at the top. The Crucifixion forms the central part of the composition, and all around are other images from both the Old and New Testaments.

Details of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty roundels from the Genesis initial
Details of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty roundels, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

On the left side of the initial is the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, Noah building the Ark, the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses receiving and then breaking the Tablets of the Law, below Christ preaching and angels. Related events fit in around these scenes, such as the Worshipping of the Golden Calf below Moses.

Detail of Moses receiving and breaking the Tablets of the Law, and the Worship of the Golden Calf from the Genesis initial
Detail of Moses receiving and breaking the Tablets of the Law, and the Worship of the Golden Calf, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

To the right of the central axis is an extended rare depiction of one of Christ’s parables, that of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6), in which the kingdom of heaven is likened to a householder who hires labourers to work in his vineyard at different times of the day. All around the medallions in which the hiring process is enacted the labourers are engaged in pruning and caring for the vines.

Detail of the householder hiring labourers, and the labourers at work in the vineyard from the Genesis initial
Detail of the householder hiring labourers, and the labourers at work in the vineyard, Add MS 28106, f. 6r

This creative and unusual interpretation suggests a relatively high level of familiarity and understanding of the biblical text. In turn, this implies that if brothers Goderannus and Ernesto did not complete the illumination of the Bible themselves, they may have designed and supervised the work of those who did.

You can read more about the Stavelot Bible and find out about two other manuscripts from Stavelot in our previous blogposts. For another giant Romanesque Bible, see our recent blogpost on the Arnstein Bible.


Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Further reading

Wayne Dynes, The Illuminations of the Stavelot Bible (New York, 1978).

John Lowden, ‘Illustration in biblical manuscripts’, in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, 4 vols (Cambridge, 2012- ), II: From 600 to 1450, ed. by Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter (2012) pp. 446-81 (p. 454).

27 May 2020

The St Albans Benefactors' Book: precious gifts and colourful characters

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Made to take pride of place on the abbey's high altar, the St Albans Benefactors' Book reads like a who's who of medieval England. It preserves hundreds of names, details and portraits of people who made gifts to the Abbey of St Albans throughout the Middle Ages. Far more than a list of donors, it presents a vivid picture of a community and all the individuals who comprised it. Its pages bustle with the life and colour of medieval society.

Donor portrait of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), holding a miniature church
King Offa of Mercia (d. 796), who is said to have founded St Albans Abbey: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 3v

The Benefactors' Book (Cotton MS Nero D VII) was begun around 1380 as a register of members of the Abbey's confraternity, established by Abbot Thomas de la Mare (r. 1350–96). According to the preface, anyone who made a donation could be admitted into the confraternity, which granted them a lavish induction ceremony, spiritual benefits and a record in this prestigious book.

As well as recording contemporary donors, the entries stretch far back into the Abbey's past, beginning with King Offa of Mercia who is said to have founded the Abbey in 793 (pictured above). Spaces were also left for future entries, and the abbey continued to add the details of new benefactors into the 16th century.

Donor portrait of Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman, holding a charter
Æthelgifu, a 10th-century noblewoman who gave lands, 30 gold mancuses, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 250 sheep, a herd of pigs with a swineherd, 2 silver cups, 2 horns, a book, a curtain and a cushion: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 90r

The job of compiling the register from the Abbey's old documents was given to Thomas Walsingham (d. c. 1422), the precentor of the Abbey and a prominent historian. The scribe was a monk of the Abbey named William de Wyllum, and the illuminator was a professional lay artist named Alan Strayler who waived the cost of the pigments in return for his place among the Abbey's benefactors (f. 108r).

Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book
Self-portrait of Alan Strayler, the artist who illuminated the book: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 108r

The book presents an orderly view of medieval society. The benefactors are organised according to social hierarchy: kings and queens first, followed by popes, abbots, priors and monks of St Albans, bishops and finally laypeople. All levels of society who could afford to donate are included, from members of the royal family and knightly aristocracy, to London burghers, fishmongers, millers and masons.

Donor portrait of Nigel the miller holding a money bag
Nigel the miller who gave a yearly sum of 4 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 96r

Strayler's lively portraits are full of individuality. People assume different postures, facial features, expressions and gestures. They wear detailed costumes appropriate to their social rank and many of them are shown proudly clutching the prized objects that they donated to the Abbey. Although it is unclear how closely they reflect the actual appearances of the people they represent, the portraits give a vivid impression of assorted personalities and walks of life.

Donor portrait of Joan, Countess of Kent, fashionably dressed and holding her gift of a necklace
Joan, countess of Kent, and princess of Wales and of Aquitaine (d. 1385), who gave a gold necklace and 100 shillings: St Albans Benefactors' Book, Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 7v
Donor portrait of Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, wearing a suit of armour and kneeling
Robert Chamberleyn, squire of the king, who gave wine liberally (1417): Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 142v

Where details of a person's appearance were known, it seems that Strayler took care to include them. For example, abbot of St Albans Richard of Wallingford (d. 1336), a gifted astronomer who created an extraordinary astronomical clock for the Abbey, is depicted with a blemished face, reflecting the fact that he was said to have suffered from leprosy.

Portrait of Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock
Richard of Wallingford, abbot of St Albans (d. 1336), with his clock: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 20r

Similarly, a man named Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynnus ye Swarte) who, together with his wife Wynflæd, gave land to the abbey in the time of King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), is depicted with dark skin.

Donor portrait of Æthelwine the Black and his wife Wynflæd holding a charter
Æthelwine the Black (Egelwynus ye Swarte) and his wife Wynflæd, who gave land to the abbey in 11th century: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 89v

Just as fascinating as the benefactors are their gifts, which richly evoke the splendour of medieval material culture. Besides land, property and money, people gave treasures such as jewellery, vestments, chalices, bowls, horns, bells, statues, precious stones and books.

Donor portrait of Petronilla de Benstede holding her gift of a round super-altar
Petronilla de Benstede who gave a round super-altar of jasper set in silver on which St Augustine of Canterbury was said to have celebrated: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 101v

The entries are suffused with hints of stories that leave you longing to know more. For example, in the section on abbots of St Albans, we learn of Abbot Ealdred who filled in the cave of a dragon, and the unfortunate Abbot John Berkamsted who 'did nothing memorable in his life' (nichil memorabile fecit in vita).

Portrait of Abbot Ealdred with a dragon at his feet
Ealdred, abbot of St Albans in the 11th century, who filled in the cave of a dragon: Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 12v
Portrait of Abbot John Berkamsted wringing his hands in anguish
John Berkamsted, abbot of St Albans (d. 1302), who 'did nothing memorable in his life', Cotton MS Nero D VII, f. 19r

Unlike the chronicles that Thomas Walsingham would go on to write, this is a history not of momentous events but of the colourful characters, precious gifts and shared stories that were the fabric of the Abbey's community for centuries.

Now you can immerse yourself in this captivating book too: the manuscript is newly digitised and available to view on our Digitised Manuscripts site.

Eleanor Jackson

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27 April 2020

Designing the Arnstein Bible

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Following our blogpost on the Worms Bible earlier this month, today I focus on another remarkable German Romanesque Bible in the Library’s collection: the Arnstein Bible. Like the Worms Bible, it is enormous (540 x 355 mm), and now in two volumes. The first volume includes Genesis to Malachi, and the second Job to Revelation, with large illuminated and decorated initials at the beginning of the biblical books. The manuscript is fully digitised, and available to view online (Harley MS 2798 and Harley MS 2799).

Decorated initial of Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v

The Bible was made at the Premonstratensian abbey of St Mary and St Nicholas in Arnstein, on the Lahn river about 30 kilometres east of Coblenz, which was founded in 1139 by the last count of Arnstein, Ludwig III (d. 1185), who became a lay brother there.

In date, the Arnstein Bible was produced around twenty-five years after the Worms Bible. Originally, the manuscript included historical annals recording important events related to the Abbey (now Darmstadt, Hessische Landesbibliothek, MS 4128), that reveal an approximate date for it of 1172. We also know the name of the man who wrote it, identified in the entry for that year as a brother called Lunandus.

Detail of decorated initial showing Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs
Solomon writing ‘Parabole Salomonis’, with busts of Wisdom, Fortitude, Justice and Prudence, at the beginning of Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57v (detail)

Lunandus had a formidable task to undertake in planning out the design and layout of this enormous book. The text is written out in 39 lines to a page, with generous margins. Most of the biblical books and introductory material are presented in two columns of 130 mm in width.

An indication that this Bible is a great monastic book is the inclusion of not one, but rather three translations of the book of Psalms, arranged in three parallel columns, each of 80 mm width. This allowed the reader to study the variant Psalm texts across the page (see this previous blog post for more on St Jerome’s (d. 420) three translations of the Psalms in this Bible).

Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101
Three parallel Psalm translations, with decorated initials showing Christ making the sign of blessing, the Virgin and Child, and a bishop, at the beginning of Psalm 101, Harley MS 2799, f. 40r

For Lunandus, planning the layout for the transition from two to three columns and back again presented particular challenges. The three comparable versions of the Psalms proper finish about three-quarters of the way down the page (f. 57r). The next texts that had to be included only required one version; however the rest of the page was still ruled for three columns. Lunandus had to signal that the reader must switch from comparing the variant Psalm translations across the page to reading one column and then going to the next, sequentially.

He did this by identifying the following texts with a series of rubrics, or headings in red ink (the term rubric is derived from the Latin 'rubrica', the name of the red ochre pigment used to make the colour red). Lunandus presented the short so-called Psalm 151 in the first column and started the prologue to the next biblical book in the second and third columns.

The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, written in three columns
The end of Psalms and the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r

The rubric in the first column summarises the contents of Psalm 151: 'Hic p[salmu]s pr[opr]ie scriptus est David [et] extra numerum cum pugnaret cum gloria et in hebraicis codicibus non habetur' (This Psalm was written by David himself and is outside the number [of the Psalms] and is not contained in Hebrew bibles. It is about the time when David fought with glory.) The short text in seven verses follows below this heading.

The adjoining rubric, spread out over columns two and three, explains that the Psalms have ended, 'explicit libor psalmorum' (here ends the book of Psalms), and that the prologue to Proverbs is about to begin (incipit). The start of this prologue begins in the middle column. Here Lunandus left room for an enlarged initial letter on eight lines, the letter ‘C’ of the first word ‘Chromatio’, the name of the original addressee. The rest of the word is written in individual letters vertically to the right of the first letter. The initial itself is embellished with stylized acanthus leaf decoration punctuated with characteristically Germanic gold bands ornamented by small round dots that are cinched around the foliate form.

Deatil of the decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs
The decorated initial at the beginning of the prologue to Proverbs, Harley MS 2799, f. 57r (detail)

This sophisticated presentation of text and image represents a stunning achievement in scholarship and design. Like other great or giant Romanesque Bibles, the Arnstein Bible represents a testament to the commitment of its makers to the elegant presentation of the Word of God.

Kathleen Doyle

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Further reading

Walter Cahn, Romanesque Bible Illumination (Cornell, 1982), pp. 26, 230, 253 no. 8, pls 157, 162.

Jeffrey F. Hamburger, 'The Hand of God and the Hand of the Scribe: Craft and Collaboration at Arnstein', in Die Bibliothek des Mittelalters als dynamischer Prozess, ed. by Michael Embach, Claudine Moulin and Andrea Rapp, Trierer Beiträge zu den Historischen Kulturwissenschaften, 3 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2012), pp. 53-78 (p. 62, fig. 22, colour plate 17).

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson and the British Library, 2016), no. 23.

03 October 2019

Off to a good start: exploring decorated initials

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Decorated initials are one of the most distinctive features of medieval manuscript illumination. Enlarging the letters at the beginning of texts was a practical way to help readers find their place in a manuscript. But it also provided an opportunity for scribes and artists to beautify the page and explore the relationship between text and image. In this blogpost we’re pondering the development and meaning of decorated initials in some of the manuscripts digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a the opening of a text with a decorated initial
The opening to Bede, Ecclesiastical History, 9th century, England, the Midlands: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v

In the 7-9th centuries, initial letters in English manuscripts were decorated like prestige metalwork. This letter ‘b’ from the opening of a 9th-century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History looks similar to the silver disc brooches that were popular among elites of the period.

An Anglo-Saxon silver disc brooch, decorated with animal and foliage motifs and a cross design
Disc brooch from the Pentney Hoard, Norfolk, early 9th century: British Museum 1980,1008.3

They share the same round shape, with an outer border divided into panels of decoration, and a central field divided into a cross-shape. Within this rigid geometry, animal and plant forms twist and intertwine, set against a dark background. Using the forms of metalwork connects the decorated letters to a visual language of prestige usually associated with kings and queens. It signifies that the words are precious and powerful.

In the case of the Tiberius Bede, the design also echoes some of the ideas that are expressed in the text. The Ecclesiastical History begins, ‘Britain, an island of the ocean, which once was called Albion, lies to the north-west, being opposite Germany, France and Spain, which form the greater part of Europe.' In the context of this geographic description, the circular bowl of the letter ‘b’ looks similar to a medieval map, divided into the four cardinal points.

A page from a medieval manuscript with a large letter Q formed from interlace animals and plants
The opening to Psalm 51, the Bosworth Psalter, Southern England (Canterbury?), 3rd quarter of the 10th century: Add MS 37517, f. 33r

In the 10th century, decorated initials moved away from the appearance of metalwork. In manuscripts such as the Bosworth Psalter, the tangled animals and vegetation took over. Whereas in the earlier image the plants and animals were confined to fixed panels within the body of the letter, here they are the letter. The letter ‘Q’ is entirely made up of looping strands that sprout indiscriminately into bunches of leaves and beast heads, which spew out more foliage from their gaping mouths. The endless twisting, transforming and re-generating of forms makes the letter seem alive. This might suggest the life-giving properties of the Psalms, which were central to medieval worship, or it might comment more broadly on the organic qualities of writing in which letters create language and generate ideas.

Page from a medieval manuscript showing a large letter D containing a picture of a man beheading another man with a sword
Psalm 101, the Eadui Psalter, Canterbury, c. 1012-23: Arundel MS 155, f. 93r

Historiated initials are letters that contain a picture inside. They first appeared in English manuscripts of the 8th century and became an important feature of illuminated manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages. Here in the Eadui Psalter, the initial ‘D’ contains an image of the young David defeating the giant Goliath, aided by God who is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky in blessing. The image encourages the reader to connect the opening words of the Psalm, ‘Hear, O Lord, my prayer: and let my cry come to thee’, to the account of David and Goliath’s combat in 1 Samuel 17, and to consider the ways in which the texts of the Bible interrelate.

In historiated initials, the letter becomes a frame through which readers can glimpse an insight into the text. But the shape of the letter might also add to the effect of the image. Here the upper bowl of the ‘D’ appears to trace the arc of David’s sword swing, vividly creating a sense of the force that David brings smashing down on Goliath’s neck.

It's clear that decorated initials were much more than decorative page markers. If you’re curious to learn more, check out our article on English manuscript illumination on The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project website.

 

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17 September 2019

Medieval sacred texts on display

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Biblical manuscripts were essential to all aspects of Christian religious life in the Middle Ages. They were studied as the cornerstone of education, read aloud from the altar, carried in processions and displayed as emblems of the Word of God. Often they are exceptionally beautiful, with the finest artisans, best materials and most reverent care devoted to their creation.

In the run up to the launch of the Library’s new Discovering Sacred Texts resource later this month, we have put some of our stunning biblical manuscripts on display in the Treasures Gallery. Let us take you on a virtual tour to explore the variety and sophistication of these medieval sacred texts.

A text page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, beginning with the decorated initials ‘MAT’ made up of twisting animal forms, and continuing in a bold rounded script.
The prologue (argumentum) to the Gospel of St Matthew, the Lindisfarne Gospels: Lindisfarne, England, c. 700, Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 18v

In the early Middle Ages, copies of the entire Bible were rare. A church’s most sacred manuscript was more usually a Gospel Book, a copy of the Four Gospels written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One of the most famous of these is the Lindisfarne Gospels. It was probably created by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne from 698 to 721, as a solitary work of painstaking devotion. The Gospel text is a particularly accurate version of the Latin Vulgate Bible produced by St Jerome, copied from an exemplar that was probably brought from Italy by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow. But the Lindisfarne Gospels’ text is doubly special. In the 10th century a priest called Aldred added an Old English translation above the words of the Latin, providing the oldest known translation of the Gospels into English.

An opening in the Cologne Gospels. On the left page is a frame containing silver writing on a purple background; on the right page is a picture of a seated man with a beard, long robe and large halo, holding a pen and a book, looking at an open book on a stand.
Evangelist portrait of St Matthew, the Cologne Gospels: Cologne, Germany, last quarter of the 11th century, Harley MS 2820, f. 14r

Medieval artists experimented with different ways of decorating the Gospels. Often each Gospel text opened with an ‘Evangelist portrait’ of its writer, based on the Classical author portraits sometimes included in ancient manuscripts. This magnificent example belongs to the ‘Cologne school’ of manuscript illumination, which was characterised by rich painterly decoration. St Matthew is depicted pen in hand, writing his Gospel. On the opposite page, a biographical poem about the Evangelist is written in silver on purple-stained parchment and surrounded by an acanthus-leaf border in imitation of imperial books from ancient Rome.

The beginning of a text with a miniature of three scenes contained inside a tall arched frame. The upper scene shows Christ’s empty tomb, the middle scene shows three women kneeling before Christ, the lower miniature shows a lion with its cubs flanked by two prophets holding scrolls.
Opening to the Gospel of Mark, the Floreffe Bible: Floreffe, modern Belgium, c. 1170, Add MS 17738, vol. II, f. 179v

In the monasteries and great churches of the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a revived interest in giant multi-volume copies of the entire Latin Bible. The monumental format of these manuscripts made them impressive symbols of the Word of God. This Bible from the Premonstratensian abbey of Floreffe in south-eastern Belgium measures 480 x 335 mm and fills two heavy volumes.

The Floreffe Bible takes an allegorical approach to illustrating the Gospels. Each Gospel text begins with a series of images exploring the relationship between the symbol of its Evangelist and an aspect of Christ’s life. Here at the opening of St Mark’s Gospel, two scenes from Christ’s Resurrection—the Three Marys discovering the empty tomb and then encountering the risen Christ—are depicted along with St Mark's lion symbol, who is shown guarding three small lion cubs. This pairing emphasises the theological link between St Mark’s lion and Christ’s Resurrection, since it was traditionally believed that lion cubs are brought to life when their father roars over them, just as God the Father resurrected Christ.

Opening to a text with a large letter I containing eight medallions, the first seven showing scenes from the Creation of the world and the eighth showing the Crucifixion.
Opening to the reading for the Mass on Christmas Day: Gospel Lectionary of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France, last quarter of the 13th century, Add MS 17341, f. 11r

Passages from the Gospels were read every day in church services, with particular readings assigned for the feasts throughout the year. In Gospel Lectionaries, Gospel passages are arranged in the order they were read in the Church calendar, rather than in chapter order. This exquisite Gospel Lectionary comes from Sainte-Chapelle, the royal palace chapel in Paris. This page shows the beginning of the Gospel of John which was read during the Mass on Christmas Day. The decorated letter I (for In principio, ‘in the beginning’) depicts God creating the world and Christ dying on the Cross. As such, it illustrates the opening words of the Gospel which describe how the Word of God created all things and became flesh in Christ.

You can come and admire all these spectacular manuscripts for free in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery or explore them online on our Digitised Manuscripts website. And watch this space for more content about our medieval sacred texts coming soon.

Eleanor Jackson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval